Browsing the U.S. Government Manual

September 29, 2011

What with invisible ink, yetis, and earthquakes, the world of Government publications can be so diverse and intriguing that it’s easy to lose track of sober perennials like the U.S. Government Manual. I’ve used this great book throughout my career in the Federal Government to get contact information for the right part of a large Federal agency or verify that a smaller, more obscure one actually existed – and what it really did. Thanks to the diligent folks at the National Archives and Records Administration’s  Office of the Federal Register, you can ferret out phone numbers, mailing addresses and URLs that really work, or just read through each agency entry to better understand its particular missions and activities. It’s perhaps the premier annual reference book for all three branches of Government.

Of course, this wouldn’t be Government Book Talk if I didn’t come at my subject from a slightly skewed angle. My favorite section to browse isn’t the main listing of agencies, the quasi-official agencies, or even the international organizations – it’s the History of Organizational Changes. For scholars or other researchers, this section is valuable because it allows them to trace the institutional evolution of a Government function or track down the ultimate fate of a defunct bureau or commission. For me (although I’ve used it for these worthy purposes), it’s mainly a way to arouse bemused curiosity about how Federal entities were christened in years past. Did you know that we once had a Bureau of Efficiency (1916-1933)? Did it fade away because we got too efficient? Doubtful, I’m afraid. What about the Office of Facts and Figures (1941-1942)? I know we haven’t run out of them…

Some innocuous agency names conceal more interesting activities. There couldn’t be a blander, more bureaucratic sounding name than The Office of  the Coordinator of Information (1942). It quickly changed to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) which, under the charismatic leader of William J. “Wild Bill” Donovan, conducted U.S.espionage and sabotage activities for the European Theater of Operations in World War II and was the progenitor of today’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Then there was the Virgin Islands Company (1934-1966), a New Deal Government corporation established to grow and refine sugar cane and manufacture and sell rum in that beautiful U.S. possession. It marketed rum under the name “Government House.” The label (left) featured a sailing ship, a palm tree, and a harbor, and supposedly was designed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt himself. How else could I find out about this stuff if not through the pages of the U.S. Government Manual?

If you need a source of the latest information about any Government agency, or if you’re just curious about the innumerable nooks and crannies of the Federal establishment, the U.S. Government Manual is for you. You can browse it here, get a print copy of the 2011 edition here, or find it in a library.


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